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BACKSTORY: The enigmatic Franz von Papen and the crystal vase

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Franz von Papen
Franz von Papen

No Weimer-era politician played a greater role in placing the crown of tyranny on the brows of Hitler than Franz von Papen. And yet he was a man of irreconcilable contradictions, for no sooner had he engineered Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933 than he expressed serious doubts about the excesses of Nazi terror. Von Papen almost paid with his life for that affront during the Night of the Long Knives, when friends and associates were murdered, but he ultimately remained loyal to Hitler’s Germany.

Von Papen served the Third Reich with distinction as ambassador to Austria and Turkey, but was free of personal animosity toward Jews. He faithfully supported Nazi policies of the deportation of Turkish Jews in France by advising the Turks not to interfere in these matters, but worked with the Vatican’s Apostolic Delegate to Turkey, to save Jews. During the Nuremberg trials, he inadvertently admitted that he knew about the deportation of Jews from France, but later stated that as a devout Catholic his conscience could never have accepted the mass murder of Jews.

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This was the man who walked into my father’s store of ornaments and tableware soon after his appointment as Reich ambassador to Ankara on a bitterly cold day in November 1939. He had done his research – he knew that my grandfather, Aron Araf Effendi, was the secular head of the Jewish community of Ankara and that my father, Elijah Araf, spoke fluent German. Elijah was speechless. He had attended the Olympics in Berlin in 1936 and knew that the times were hard for German Jews.

They chatted for a while, and von Papen bought a blue crystal vase for a returning diplomat at the German embassy. After that visit, the von Papens became regular customers and other members of embassy also shopped at Elijah’s store.

At the time, the Araf clan lived in a mansion opposite the synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Ankara. Based on the recollections of my relatives, the house had a courtyard redolent with the harmonies of an Andalusian garden. Sensuously ornamented arches, sun-washed ivory white plastered walls seducing the changing colours and shadows of the day, receding soft rounded edges, cupola crowned portals supported by mosaic embroidered columns – all embracing the effervescent fountain.

The fount was embedded in a rainbow-coloured floral enclosure displaying winter aconites, snow drops and wind flowers intertwined with eruptions of hyacinths and inevitable darling roses of the East. The Sephardi oasis, in the shadows of two thorn trees, was surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped three-storey building crowned with orange cream coloured terracotta tiles.

They were nine brothers and sisters: Vitali and Daniel were doing their military service; Joseph, the youngest brother, was studying law at the university; Virginie, the eldest daughter had married, but Elijah, Rachel, Perla, Rosa and Eliza lived at home with Aron and his devoted wife, Karen.

The last time Elijah saw von Papen was in Karpich Baba, the only restaurant of quality in Ankara, in the company of a man of the cloth whom we identified, years later, as Giuseppe Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII who was then serving as Apostolic Delegate to Turkey. Just as Goering had saved von Papen’s life during the Hitler purges, Roncalli too saved him from the noose, as he testified that the German diplomat had worked with him to save Jews during the war.

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In the final analysis, was von Papen a suave, aristocratic and cultured Dr. Faust who fell into the web of Mephistopheles’ blandishments? Or was he Mephistopheles masked as Dr. Faust

Heinrich Heine may have provided the answer:

“I called the Devil and he came

And then I saw with a wandering gaze

He was not hideous, he was not lame

But a genial man with charming ways,

A man in the very flush of his prime,

Experienced, suave and in touch with his time,

As a diplomat, his talent is great,

And he speaks wisely of church and state.”